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Pay attention – and become a genius

I’ve been thinking. For a short while now.

[Insert your jests and jokes here… haha! plonk! – laughed my head off… ok, we’re done?]

By thinking, I mean, seriously focused on stuff. Whether it’s writing, whether it’s playing garden cricket with my kids, whether it’s going for a run in the morning or lifting weights… I try and concentrate all my attention on what I’m doing, rather than be squirrel.

Something has happened. I’ve dramatically improved in each of those areas. And I don’t just mean like cut seconds off my 5km time trial, I mean like I might threaten the world record.

Ok, maybe “threaten” is a strong word. Maybe it’s more like lick.

But seriously, me! Moi! So here’s my current thought, which I thought I’d share with you. I mean, I know the school year has started and learning has commenced, but seriously people – I think I’m becoming a genius!

My friend Leandra, who runs an Italian restaurant, messaged me the other day:

“Why have we not thought of this before… tequila Jell-O shots set in lime wedges? I think I may be a genius!”

I know what happened. She was lying awake for hours focused on ideas for her restaurant. Of course this kind of concentration would yield out-of-the-ordinary results.

I’ve watched my son with his Lego. Every so often, he gets locked in to a building zone and his creations are pretty impressive for a nine-year-old brain. He’s concentrating, he’s focused, he’s paying attention… he’s on his way to becoming a genius Lego builder, and who knows what after that.

Often, we allow ourselves to slip into autopilot. The way we exercise, the way we read, the way we speak to others…

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t get better on autopilot. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman has been saying this for a long time. He explains:

Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training — whether in skiing or driving — people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible.

The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.

So for you and I, to become a genius in any given area, the idea is simple: direct attention and energy to where it needs to be, rather than allow the distractions of modern life to slip you up.

Pay attention, in other words, and you’ll become a genius.

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